In Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem "Tears, Idle Tears," what is the meaning, if any, of the speaker's tears?
The poem known as “Tears, Idle Tears,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was originally part of a longer work. Yet the poem today is most often read as a separate, isolated lyric – a nostalgic meditation on the past. The speaker suddenly feels the rush of tears, but he is unable to characterize either their cause or their meaning very precisely: “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean” (1). In a sense, the rest of the poem is an attempt by the speaker to make some sense of the tears that have so suddenly arisen in him.
He thinks they have arisen “from the depth of some divine despair” (2) – a phrase that already suggests some of the ambiguity of the poem as a whole. The despair or hopelessness the speaker feels is somehow “divine.” In other words, it is painful in some ways but seems richly significant in others. Use of the word “some” adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the poem: the speaker is trying to understand the meaning of his sudden impulse to weep, but as yet he cannot quite make sense of his strong feelings. Evidently, however, they are connected with the realization of mutability – of the passage of time, the loss of time past, and the coming of old age and mortality. The tears result, in part, from
. . . looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more. (4-5)
Even here, the phrasing is ambiguous and ambivalent: the fields seem happy, but the speaker seems somewhat mournful. Perhaps his tears arise, in part, from the realization that autumn comes and goes and comes and goes in the case of nature (such as fields), but that the autumn of each individual human being (as in old age and death) occurs just once and then is gone forever.
In the second stanza, the speaker refers to another natural cycle. If the first stanza had alluded to the cycle of the passing year, the second refers to the cycle of the passing day – specifically, the rising and setting of the sun. The rising sun is associated with the arrival of friends, who are somehow brought “up from the underworld” (7). The phrasing here, as in so much of the poem, is ambiguous and mysterious. Is the speaker referring to the memory of friends who are now dead? The meaning of this phrase isn’t entirely clear – another example of the poem’s studied ambiguity.
In any case, the rest of this stanza alludes to another example of the passage of time – specifically, the ending of a day, symbolized by sunset, which “sinks with all we love below the verge” (9). This stanza ends on another ambiguous, ambivalent note: somehow, the “days that are no more” are both “Sad” and “fresh” – sad because they are gone, fresh, however, in the memory of the speaker (but only there).
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In stanza three, the speaker once again uses imagery associated with the passage of a day, and once again ambiguous, ambivalent imagery is stressed: “summer dawns” are somehow “dark” (11); singing birds are only “half-awakened.” In lines 13-15, the speaker seems to describe a human being dying:
To dying ears, . . . unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square (13-14).
Once again, then, the main theme of the poem seems to be mutability (change) with a strong emphasis also on mortality (death). The speaker’s tears seem to have arisen from a sudden realization not only of the mutability of all things but especially of the mortality of human beings (himself and his friends included). This realization provokes the ambiguous tears the speaker feels: tears of joy in recollecting the past, but also tears of sadness in recognizing that the past cannot be recovered except by memory. And also, perhaps, tears of sadness in recognizing one’s own inevitable participation in both mutability and mortality.
Ambiguity and especially ambivalence remain the dominant tones of the final stanza. In that stanza, the speaker thinks of kisses that are “remembered . . . after death” (16). Presumably he means kisses exchanged in the past with a person who has now died. Those kisses were once the sources of joy, but now the memory of them is mingled with sadness because the loved one has passed away. Remembered kisses are then replaced by imagined kisses: kisses one might want to exchange with “lips that are for others” – in other words, lips belonging a person one will never have a chance to kiss. Here again, then, pleasure is mixed with sadness, and it is this mixture that is one of the dominant themes of the poem. The speaker contemplates the passion of “first love” (19) – a phrase that inevitably implies the loss of such love, whose intensity can never quite be recaptured. Once again the phrasing is complex and paradoxical, as the final line emphasizes “Death in Life, the days that are no more” (20). The speaker’s tears, then, seem to be tears both of joy and of sadness – joy when he recalls the beauty of the past, sadness when he realizes that the past is past indeed.